One of the key points of Ross Douthat’s recent musings on President Obama’s potential power grab on immigration is that such a move would be a choice. The Republic will continue to exist even if the president does not offer some sweeping legalization of millions of illegal immigrants.
One obvious alternative would be for the president to continue to campaign for some version of immigration reform. This would not be “doing nothing” but instead would be doing (or trying to do) the valuable work of persuading the American people to support a given set of policies. The president could also try rigorously enforcing the law (especially employment law) as a way of building trust, improving the position of the recent immigrant and the average American worker in general, weakening those who exploit illegal immigrants, and cracking down on the zones of lawlessness that threaten America’s civic integration.
Just as there are multiple ways that President Obama can choose to respond to the current “deadlock” on immigration, this deadlock is itself partly a product of different political choices made by the president. He could have committed to passing immigration legislation in 2009–10, when Democrats controlled Congress. Rather than insisting on a “comprehensive” bill (or a “comprehensive” series of bills), the president might have supported passing stand-alone, targeted immigration measures — such as some version of the DREAM Act or an increase in guest-worker visas, or a trade of increased enforcement for one of those measures. There’s a significant chance that such measures, for good or ill, could have passed Congress. After all, former majority leader Eric Cantor was still working on his KIDS Act, which would have included some kind of legalization, into 2014. The president’s choice to insist upon an all-or-nothing approach to immigration reform helped keep Congress from passing a bill that he was willing to sign.
Furthermore, it was President Obama’s choice to issue Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. Whether one agrees with the policy aims of DACA or not, it seems fairly clear that the president’s unilateral decision to put it into place did serious damage to the hopes of passing immigration reform. Even Obama’s allies on the left admit that DACA preempted (and essentially destroyed the legislative chances of) a bill being drafted by Marco Rubio that would have put in place some provisions of the DREAM Act. In 2012, given the choice between working to pass bipartisan piecemeal legislation on immigration or scoring political points, Obama chose the latter.
But the president’s 2012 unilateral action has had some unpleasant consequences for the hopes of immigration reform. It poisoned the well of bipartisanship on the DREAM Act, and it also made many wonder whether the president would rigorously enforce any new laws put in place as part of a deal on immigration reform. Obama’s unilateral actions on immigration, health care, and other issues helped destroy the sense of trust that is necessary for the passage of major immigration legislation.
In many respects, then, President Obama has done far more to torpedo the passage of immigration legislation than Representative Steve King, the Iowa Republican who is a favorite target of left-wing vitriol. So it is ironic to see the president now use congressional inaction on immigration as an excuse to expand his power even further. And, should President Obama go through with some executive power grab on immigration, he may do even more damage to the prospects of passing immigration reform. Post-power grab, cooperating with the president on immigration could become so radioactive that even many Republican allies of the White House immigration agenda might back away. Even President Obama himself feared in 2010 that nullifying immigration law could lead to more illegal immigration, so an increase in it post-power grab could further polarize the nation on the issue and further undermine the economic aspirations of many immigrant communities.
On immigration (and other issues), President Obama has too often chosen to polarize and divide. This polarization has undermined the passage of immigration legislation and has obstructed the development of forward-looking immigration reform. In choosing to issue a sweeping edict on immigration, Obama may bring the United States to the edge of a constitutional abyss. Hey may also damage the prospects of passing immigration legislation in the future, increase the human misery that is a byproduct of bad-faith open borders, and further polarize the body politic. That choice of an executive power grab could have significant constitutional and humanitarian consequences — not to mention its implications for President Obama’s legacy.